Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Welcome to Shelbyville: Loving, Fearing Thy Neighbors

• May 22, 2011 • 4:00 AM

In the documentary film “Welcome to Shelbyville,” a small Tennessee town deals with an influx of residents from Somalia.

In news headlines and broadcast bulletins, the word “Somali” is inevitably followed by a dread-inducing plural noun: “pirates” or “warlords” or “terrorists.” So it’s no surprise that natives of the war-ravaged East African country of Somalia are viewed with fear and suspicion by many, if not most, Americans.

When significant numbers of Somali refugees moved to Shelbyville, Tenn., (population 16,000) to work at the nearby Tyson Foods processing plant, the town’s residents reacted with deep suspicion. “We don’t know what diseases they have,” a former mayor frets in the opening minutes of the new documentary film Welcome to Shelbyville. Intensifying his fear is the fact the newcomers are Muslims, which in his view means: “They want to kill us.”

That lack of political correctness makes Shelbyville an ideal setting for a film about immigration and assimilation. When a feisty black resident named Beverly Hewitt visits the home of a Somali immigrant family, she minces no words, informing them, “Most folks think you’re plum mean,” and asking, “You’re not terrorists, right?” In Shelbyville, unspoken fears get spoken and sometimes even assuaged.

Kim Snyder’s documentary, which premieres on PBS May 24 as part of the Independent Lens series, provides a mosaic-like portrait of a town in transition. The film begins just before the election of Barack Obama, which excites some residents and worries others. But their immediate concern is the Somali families who have recently arrived, unannounced. Legal residents who came to the U.S. as part of a refugee-resettlement program, they found temporary homes in Nashville before migrating to this rural area in search of blue-collar jobs.

“I always imagined America as a place where I could work, find a better education and live peacefully,” says Somali Hawo Siyard, sounding strikingly similar to the immigrants who came before her. One longtime local who can sympathize is Miguel Gonzalez, a Mexican native (and American citizen) who moved to the area years earlier to work in an auto plant. His family wasn’t welcomed with open arms, either.

Gonzalez and Hewitt are both part of a grassroots organization called Welcoming America that works with communities to foster better relations between locals and their foreign-born neighbors. The film chronicles attempts to begin and sustain a dialogue between newcomers and old-timers. This effort involves occasional field trips: Shelbyville calls itself the “Walking Horse Capital of the World,” and one amusingly incongruous image finds colorfully dressed, headscarf-wearing Somali women taking in their first horse show.

One problem, at least as the Somalis perceive it, is the local newspaper; they view its coverage as slanted against them, emphasizing the negative. In a decidedly uncomfortable scene, reporter Brian Mosely — internal fight-or-flight system fully engaged, by the look of his awkward body language — visits a Somali home to explain his role and better understand their viewpoint. We later learn his coverage of the controversy has won awards.

“This is a lot of change for a small town to grapple with,” Snyder says. “I can understand why it’s tough. They have no context for what’s happening. There isn’t anybody going to these places and saying, ‘Here’s a little background about these people who are coming.’ Hopefully the film will help in this regard. It’s being shown in a lot of communities that mirror the demographics of Shelbyville.”

The hourlong film spends a lot of time with the town’s religious leaders, who are trying to help congregants reconcile their faith (which instructs them to love their new neighbors) with their fears. The most enthusiastic group is the Baptists, which seems odd until you realize they view these newcomers as potential converts. “The mission field has been brought to us!” one enthusiastic believer declares.

Watch the full episode. See more Independent Lens.

“There are a lot of perspectives in this little town,” Snyder notes. “This [demographic shift] entails some loss for most parties, but also potential opportunities. How you define those losses and opportunities are different for each group.” That understanding is shared by the local sheriff, who seems bemused as he points out that his tiny town has become “one of the most culturally diverse places in America.” Try to imagine one of his Civil Rights-era predecessors saying the same, and you realize we really have made some progress.

“I think it is a hopeful film,” Snyder says. “I’m even more hopeful after seeing how it’s being used. Some people in Corvallis, Ore., wrote me after the local mosque was bombed and asked if they could show the film there. There have been so many reactions like that, where it’s been shown in places where there is tension [between locals and newcomers], or where they simply say, ‘This is our story.'”

And that reaction isn’t exclusive to the United States. Snyder has shown the film to receptive audiences in European cities grappling with immigration. And as part of a State Department program designed to expose people around the world to American ideals and culture, she brought the documentary to Nigeria last August.

“The first time I saw it with an audience was in Kano, a majority-Muslim city in northern Nigeria,” she said. “People were so appreciative of the film. Christian-Muslim killings had taken place in a neighboring town two weeks prior. From their perspective, the fact the people of Shelbyville weren’t turning to violence meant a lot. They commented, ‘Look what this small town was able to do!'”

Whether you’re in urban Nigeria or rural Tennessee (which was Klan country only a half-century ago), it’s easy to caricature newly arrived immigrants. But it’s also easy to stereotype longtime locals who fear for the cohesion of their communities. Welcome to Shelbyville avoids falling into either trap, portraying all its characters with sensitivity and empathy. “I hear they’re very aggressive,” one local man says of the Somalis. “But maybe a year ago, they were fighting for food. They had to be aggressive.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.